Book review: ‘A Beautiful Game’

The first thing you’ll notice about A Beautiful Game is that it’s a beautiful book. The photography is rich and diverse — a treasured pair of dirty boots in Liberia, a youth clinic in Cambodia, a junkyard kickabout in Brazil, Fabio Cannavaro with a medal in Germany. Flip through the pages, and the scenes are as vibrant as the made-for-HD Planet Earth and Life TV series. Put the book on a coffee table, and you may find visitors flipping through it regardless of their level of soccer interest.

The text of the book is a collection of essays from mostly famous players around the world, all telling their stories of how they grew up with the game. The 41 essayists include some of the world’s biggest names — Lionel Messi, Luis Figo, Franck Ribery (unfortunate timing, given his current scandal) and Cannavaro. Yet coincidentally or not, Major League Soccer is well-represented. Landon Donovan is the chosen American. Former MLS players Ivan Guerrero, Claudio Suarez, Carlos Ruiz and Ryan Nelsen contribute along with current Chivas USA teammates Ante Jazic and Maykel Galindo.

Best of all these is a riveting introduction from David Beckham about a UNICEF visit to Sierra Leone. Beckham talks openly of his fear of being overwhelmed by the conditions he would find on his visit, but as he tells it, he left the country full of hope after greeting families with hugs — and a football. The introduction sets the tone: No matter the circumstances, football gives children hope and joy. Five percent of the book’s proceeds will go to UNICEF sports projects.

The downside is that the stories, though they’re drawn from diverse countries, tend to sound the same after a while. Whether they’re playing on the streets of Honduras or in a club in Finland, the players all talk of playing until sundown and forging their happiest memories kicking about with their friends. Browse through the book in several sittings, and this disadvantage is quickly forgotten.

Yet the book has a deeper drawback. As inclusive as it is for people of different national origins, economic backgrounds and faiths, it’s not gender-inclusive. Women are barely visible — a shot of the U.S. team celebrating stands out as the reader flips through pages and pages of boys and men. How much would we love to read the story of Brandi Chastain picking up the game as girls were first encouraged to play in the USA? Or Marta, learning to play in a culture less accommodating to women’s soccer? (Or so we think.)

That’s the one major oversight. Otherwise, this fine book opens the reader’s eyes to the world, not with sad and shocking tales but with inspirational stories of global joy.

The details: A Beautiful Game, edited by Tom Watt, HarperOne (imprint of HarperCollins), release May 2010

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Phil, Tiger and more perils of groupthink

When Phil Mickelson is asked what to serve at the Champions Dinner at next year’s Masters, he should ask if everyone has had enough Tiger barbecue.

It takes a lot to make anyone feel sympathy for a serial adulterer, but the breathless Tiger coverage has done it. Over the weekend, Woods’ every word has been scrutinized as much as the Bill of Rights has in the last 220 1/2 years.

Indeed, the Masters weekend has shown us that media coverage tends to be consistent — within a finite period of time. Commentator A will usually agree with Commentator B, disagreeing only over to what degree they agree — in other words, who agrees the most.

But over a longer scope of time, media coverage is wildly inconsistent. Tom Hanks’ “Mr. Short-Term Memory” would’ve been a good pundit.

Consider Phil Mickelson, cast as “good” in this weekend’s “good vs. evil” morality play. That wasn’t always the case, of course. A couple of years ago, Mickelson was fair game for teasing such as this. And he hasn’t always been the friendliest guy with the media. Not sure anyone could blame him, given the way he was constantly criticized for being too aggressive on the golf course, always embracing a risk-reward shot no matter how great the risk.

It would take a brave or foolish pundit to go against the grain on Mickelson this weekend under any circumstances. His wife and mother were diagnosed with breast cancer within a few weeks of each other last year. And that swashbuckling form that many in the media hated had always earned him a cult following. (Disclosure: I always considered myself more aligned with the “cult following” than the “media,” though perhaps that’s because I almost always go against the mob mentality.)

This weekend, everyone’s applauding Phil’s daring shots and bemoaning Tiger’s intensity. Three years ago, you could’ve flipped that. Tiger’s profanity might get the same mild tut-tut that a wayward Mickelson shot would today.

That’s because Phil’s insane aggression and Tiger’s intense mindset are the same. And we like people doing whatever it takes to win … when they win.

Until, of course, you start winning too much, like Duke. Or Tiger. And then the underdogs get a free pass to hate.

Just like that musical about a guy who makes a deal with the devil to help his team beat some other team … what was it called? Oh yes …

Damn Yankees.

Better not repeat that show title out on the course, Tiger.

Tuesday tribalism (and news, not all about Duke)

We’re Americans, with a capital ‘A’, huh? You know what that means? Do ya? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We’re the underdog. We’re mutts! … We’re mutants. There’s something wrong with us, something very, very wrong with us. Something seriously wrong with us – we’re soldiers. But we’re American soldiers! We’ve been kicking ass for 200 years! We’re 10 and 1!

– John Winger (Bill Murray), Stripes

America may be the biggest and most powerful country the world has seen since Britain decided to quit naming most of the world after its monarchs, but we still love the underdog. No one’s making a movie about the big school with the great facilities that won the Indiana high school basketball championship as expected.

Once upon a time, Mike Krzyzewski and Duke were the underdogs challenging the long reign of Dean Smith and North Carolina in the ACC. No one had a clue of what was to come. True story: In a freshman dorm at Duke in the fall of 1987, someone said it was a shame we had all arrived after all the good basketball. And no one doubted it.

That’s changed a bit. The well-mannered runners-up with the unruly trend-setting crowd have become champions once, twice, three and now four times. By 2001, most people were sick of seeing Shane Battier on ESPN, no matter how likable and admirable the guy was. And seriously, what was up with that “Who’s your daddy Battier” chant?

Duke is also seen as a place of privilege, and as a standout Salon piece points out, Americans have mixed feelings about that. They’re not even consistent in how they apply that prejudice to basketball. Why would Duke be any more evil than Georgetown, another private school where the rent is a lot higher than it is in the crime-infested neighborhoods around Duke?

Continue reading Tuesday tribalism (and news, not all about Duke)